The meeting in the east room of the White House was billed as a chance to “reset” the relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but her first face-to-face meeting with President Donald Trump was an exercise in chilly correctness.
Trump didn’t give any ground on his hardline stance on trade or refugees, and Merkel politely stood her ground, saying in her opening statement only that she appreciated the President’s hospitality, “It’s better to talk to one another than about one another,” and that the time spent together before greeting the media “was a very good first exchange of views.”
Trump appeared impatient and restless as he stood at the podium, and took offense at the questions posed by German reporters. The first, initially directed at Merkel, was about her reaction to Trump’s “dangerous isolationist policies.” Then the reporter turned to Trump to ask, “Why are you scared of diversity in the media that you talk about fake news?”
“Nice friendly reporter,” Trump quipped to laughter from the friend and family section to his left, where Vice President Pence sat with Reince Priebus sat with Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. “I’m not an isolationist,” Donald Trump continued, “I’m a free trader, but I am also a fair trader.” For good measure, he added: “I don’t know what newspaper you’re reading, but it would be another example of fake news.” More appreciative laughter from the cheering section.
Trump would later say, in response to a question from a U.S. reporter, that, “negotiators for Germany have done a far better job than negotiators for the United States. We’re going to even it out. We don’t want victory; we want fairness.” He referred to “horrible NAFTA,” and said the fact that workers were “screwed, that’s probably the reason I’m here when you talk about trade.”
The second question allotted to the German media was directed at Trump, and the various debunked claims that he and his administration had made about alleged wiretapping of his campaign by the Obama White House: “After these clear rejections, are their other suspects? … And are there tweets you regret?”
“Very seldom,” Trump shot back, adding he wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for his tweets. “I can get around the media when the media doesn’t tell the truth, and I like that.”
Pressed on the origin of his claims, Trump directed the reporter to “a statement made by a very talented lawyer on Fox,” referring to former judge and current Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano’s claim today that “President Obama went outside the chain of command" and had British intelligence monitor and track Trump. “You shouldn’t be talking to me, you should be talking to him.”
Trump couldn’t resist another gratuitous shot at Obama, saying to the German reporter that when it comes to the subject of wiretapping, “Perhaps we have something in common,” a reference to the Edward Snowden-leaked revelation that during the Obama administration American security agencies listened in to Merkel’s cell phone. That drew laughter from the German press.
During his campaign, Trump called Merkel’s open-door policy for refugees “catastrophic,” and predicted the German people would overthrow her. She faces the voters in September, and after the Netherlands populist politician, Geert Wilders, failed to oust the center-right prime minister, Merkel said it was a “signal” that right-wing populism was losing momentum.
At the press conference with Trump, she defended her policies on integrating refugees, saying “migration, immigration, integration has to be worked on…This is where we have an exchange of views.”
Trump said he strongly supports NATO, but that the allies have to pay up, that they owe “vast sums of money… These nations must pay their fair share.”
Merkel said her government pledges to pay 2 percent through 2024, and that military spending rose 8 percent last year, in keeping with Trump’s demand that the allies do more to insure their own security.
The two questions allotted to U.S. Americans focused on domestic issues, with Mark Halperin of Bloomberg asking Trump what in the health care plan before Congress is “non-negotiable.”
The President launched into his sales pitch for the plan, citing a meeting that morning at the White House with 12 Republican lawmakers who, he said, came in as no’s and left as yeses. “It’s coming together beautifully,” he said.
He emphasized that Obamacare is failing, and that he could wait one year and “even the Democrats” would be willing to work with him.
“What’s non-negotiable?” Halperin pressed. “I’ll tell you after we’re finished,” Trump said in one of the lighter moments in an otherwise coldly correct encounter with one of America’s staunchest allies.